Lessons for building an eco-city from scratch

A construction in Casablanca, Morocco. Photo by: Mark Walsh / CC BY-NC-ND

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Building an eco-city from scratch is a balancing act. Developers at Morocco’s Zenata kept environmental impact and job creation in mind as they set about to design their urban strategy. Their goal was a sustainable urban development project that optimized natural resource use. At each step, they evaluated their performance according to key social, environmental, and economic performance indicators.

Devex saw the results first hand during a visit to Zenata Eco-City last month. A mixed sewage collection system, for example, redirects rainwater toward retention ponds. The design also reserved 30 percent of the land for green spaces to promote biodiversity. With the eventual opening of an integrated health care center, university campus and shopping center, Zenata expects to offer 100,000 jobs to its estimated 300,000 residents, according to Mohamed Naciri, business development director at Zenata Development Company — the group responsible for the city’s design.

Zenata’s phase one broke ground in 2012, and to date, all major roads have been built, an IKEA retail store has opened at the retail center, and the foundation for a residential area has been laid in the 2,000 acre area. Developers say the city’s neighborhood, Quartier de la Ferme, should be welcoming families by 2020.

An inside look into Africa's first eco-city: Zenata, Morocco

Zenata Eco-City is a sustainable urban development project that plans to Leaders at Zenata talked to Devex about how emerging countries can follow their award-winning model to build new cities for overflowing populations social inclusion and job creation.

The city’s systemic approach was recognized by French HQE certification agency Cerway for its sustainable standards, as well as its inclusion of national and local issues. The project was awarded an “eco-city label” in October 2015 and now serves as a blueprint for similar urban projects in Africa and abroad.

Experts at the Zenata Development Company spoke with Devex about their takeaways from the planning and implementation phases of the project.

1. Build strong partnerships at local, national and international level

The biggest challenge for Zenata’s developers was managing their vast network of partners and stakeholders, Naciri said. “You’re talking about state, civil, local authorities, civil society, financial institutions, investors, private companies … It’s a lot,” he said. He found that prioritizing inclusion and communication was essential.

Producing tangible results can help. Building an eco-city can take 30 to 40 years. As Zenata started to become a reality, Naciri said he found it easier to help partners and the population understand and believe in the project. “You have to gain the confidence of all these parties, and once you have their confidence that’s your real starting point.”

2. Consider location

Zenata is strategically located roughly a half-hour drive from Casablanca to the south and an hour’s drive from Rabat to the north and will serve a hub for road, rail and sea transport infrastructure. That sort of positioning is vital to ensure that a new city can take some of the pressure off other urban areas. New cities need to be accessible and convenient for businesses and residents to embrace them.

“Location is crucial in developing a sustainable project because with a good location you will maximize the potential of your objectives,” said Director of Sustainable Development at Zenata Mustapha Chafik. Zenata, for example, sits along the Atlantic Ocean, opening possibilities for future import-export trade.

Zenata Development Company is working to turn that potential into reality. Company officials sought local government permission to demolish temporary housing that currently exists along the coastline. They then plan to build a road directly from the Zenata’s industrial zone to the ocean, which Chafik said could serve retailers that receive international shipments or as a new port of trade for national companies.

3. Think about jobs

Job creation was a high priority for developers working on Zenata, they told Devex. The city incorporated a range of employment opportunities into its development plan by including a shopping mall, university, health care center and industrial park. The city has a capacity of 300,000 residents with a plan to provide one-third with work. Naciri expects businesses will also increasingly look to set up shop in Zenata, rather than in Casablanca or Rabat, its two neighboring cities.

Naciri hopes Zenata can serve as a model for others interested in building an eco-city. The context may vary, but he told Devex that future cities can emerge in a way that considers local solutions for social, environmental and economic challenges. “Copying Zenata will not work for every situation. Instead, Zenata offers an approach where you look at three major pillars at the same time throughout the development process to make sure you’re not forgetting anything or anyone along the way.”

Editor’s note: The Agence Française de Développement facilitated Devex's travel and logistics for this reporting. However, Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.

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About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.

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